Willing And Able

There’s some kings in my deck and a queen or to
So you know there ain’t nothin’, Nothin’ that I wouldn’t do

Prince – Willing And Able – Diamonds And Pearls


My reflections on my first couple of years in my role as Head of Department.

Just under a couple of years ago I was lucky enough to be appointed as HOD. In that time, I’ve got some things right, and some things wrong. I want to talk about the things I mostly got wrong because, although I couldn’t see it, I was heading towards a perfect storm!

Rewind two years ago: I was new to the school and new to the team and I was walking into a very established team. I had been given a remit and as anyone new to a role, I wanted to do a good job.

For the purpose of this blog I am going to focus on three areas I found the most challenging; difficult conversations, monitoring and making changes.

The elephant in the room

Difficult conversations: this was, and possibly still is, the hardest area to get right.

All schools want to raise achievement and standards. I decided my first job would be to look at year 11 data and felt one of the best ways was to moderate the recent mock marking. Once I’d reviewed the mocks I felt some marks didn’t fall within tolerance, especially in specific skill areas. I held a meeting to discuss the marking, so as not to single anyone out, I brought some model answers to show levels (against a mark scheme). A piece of cake I thought! Nope: that was a big mistake.

On reflection, I can understand why.  We all want to feel as if we are doing our jobs well. When I was training I was told my marking, when moderated, didn’t fall within tolerance. But I now realise I am somebody who likes clear and direct instructions but I think more importantly I had an established relationship with my line manager. Her delivery was clear. Mine, possibly out of nerves, was muddled.

Of course, I didn’t consciously set out to be unclear in my delivery, but walking into a meeting after a very short time and being negative was never going to be received in the way I’d hoped it would! A more accurate description would be to say that it went down like a lead balloon tied to the Titanic.

What would I do now?

I wouldn’t have held that meeting! I would set time aside in department meeting to focus on specific areas of the exam spec, skills or questions. For example, we could have all marked a student response together, a visualiser would have worked well, then discuss(ed) as a team why it fell into a level/mark. Or I could have provided exam board SAMs and as a team we could have discussed the mark given.

That would have been a better and more productive way of dealing with it.

The devil is in the detail

Monitoring a department is an area that I would often push to the side. I would set time aside for tracking different aspects of the department. Sometimes I would manage to adhere to my allocated time, sometimes I couldn’t due to more pressing issues. Again a big mistake.

The importance of monitoring (in a supportive way) cannot be overlooked. Had I kept to a schedule I would have had a much firmer grasp on all areas and I would have been able to deal with any issues (regardless of how minor) as they cropped up, not further down the line when it is much harder to resolve.

What would I do now?

I make up a schedule and ensure I stick to it by blocking out time on my timetable for monitoring (learning walks, book looks etc) over a half term. Again, any minor problems can be swept up quickly and dealt with before they become an issue and then possibly require a difficult conversation!  Seriously, I/we need to avoid anything getting to the stage that it “needs” one of those!  Sticking to a schedule means I can ensure department meetings address points before they escalate, through ongoing CPD. Slow and steady wins the race!

For example, after a book look staff could bring examples of marking and again as a team discuss positives together. Or if there’s an issue with the level of challenge in particular units, we could discuss how to raise it, for example, change the texts, or the focus.

The best thing since sliced bread

I moved from one secondary to another with a completely different demographic.

By the time I was appointed HOD I was a heavy social media user (mainly twitter).  I had started blogging and attended conferences at weekends. Being surrounded with so many enthusiastic and passionate teachers who were willing to give up their time, experience and knowledge (let alone resources) helped me grow in so many ways. For example there was so much discussion around certain edu-books (Reading Reconsidered, Bringing Words to Life, Closing the Vocab Gap) and before long I was spending vast amounts of time on Amazon! I brought with me a raft of new resources and started changing things. I wouldn’t go as far as to say “big mistake”, it wasn’t.  Changes I made, based on previous experience, research or books I’d read, were good – they focused on more challenging texts, high-quality purposeful resources all with the sole purpose of raising standards or improving progress. What was misguided was my implementation.

Change is good, and it’s needed. However, it’s important to consider why are you changing something? What will it add? How will it improve outcomes? Whatever you do has to have a purpose and ultimately has to help students making progress in one way or another. There was some resistance to some of the changes I wanted to make and again, on reflection I can see why.  In a conversation with Zoe Enser (@greeborunner) about this blog, she reminded me of the Ikea effect (as David Weston, @informed_edu, called it) “they had built it, it was theirs and now you were dismantling it!”  Once again I should have been clearer (again there’s that word) in my delivery. I should have been clearer on why some things needed changing and why it mattered.

What would I do now?

I wouldn’t make so many changes in such a small amount of time. I’d make sure any changes are in line with the school’s priorities and improvement plans. First and foremost I would be explicit in explaining the importance of any change.

Hit the Nail on the Head: What does the future hold?

At this point, I do need to stop and say that you can’t discuss/debate everything “as a team” or through CPD. Sometimes as a middle leader, you just need to make a decision. That’s part of your job.

I also need to point out it hasn’t been all doom and gloom. These are some of the strategies I have implemented successfully: I’ve worked hard on bringing structure and consistency to the department, raising achievement through standards and challenge, organisation of units, marking, feedback and assessments, dealing with deadlines alongside exam admin and sharing of resources. I’ve brought new texts in, streamlined starters and homework to target key skills. I began a strong extracurricular program, including national competitions, taking all KS3 to the library, year 11 to the local university, trips to the theatre and in-house performances. I have raised the profile of rewards, certificates and positive praise in the department alongside communication home with parents. I asked the exam board to come in and host a training session, and I ensure subject knowledge/teaching is always a focus of department meetings and to support the department I set up lunchtime “catch up” sessions for students not working at expected standards in their classwork and/or homework.  Once the team could see how to move forward, we began to see real improvements  – many of the strategies and initiatives I’ve implemented have been very well received, not just by the school, but parents and students and so far all had a positive impact in both KS3 and 4.

This year we had a very successful set of GCSE results in language and literature with nearly half of our students walking away with a grade 7-9. As a team, we clearly got a lot right – together!

What will I be changing for my third year?!

I need to remember the snowball effect – all decisions, strategies and initiatives I/we decide on will build and build: it doesn’t need to be overnight. I will continue to learn and grow as a middle leader. My school SLT and other Middle Leaders are fantastic and have supported me throughout my journey. The school has sent me on specific CPD courses to help me and are always there if I need to ask advice.  Also, they’ve supported all the strategies and initiatives I’ve suggested to help raise student achievement and begin to foster a love of English in them.

My priority for the next year ahead is to continue to support and lead my department in the way a good middle leader should.

Thank you for reading.

Some free support (taken from David Weston Unleashing Greatness in Teachers)

DfE CPD Standards – https://tdtrust.org/research/dfe-cpd-standard
Developing Great Teaching report- https://tdtrust.org/dgt
Free webinar on instructional coaching – https://tdtrust.org/coach
Monthly bulletin on effective CPD – https://tdtrust.org/news/newsletter
A library of articles on effective CPD – https://tdtrust.org/blog

“Strange Relationship”

Oh, what the hell, U always surrender
What’s this strange relationship that we hold on 2?

Prince – Strange Relationship – Sign of the Times

Every teacher understands the importance of support from home. To have parents or carers not only support a teacher/school, but I am sure we’d all agree, for those at home to take an active interest in their child’s education makes a huge difference to a student’s attitude to learning. We need to avoid them becoming a strange relationship.

Primary schools are much better at this than secondary (or that’s been my experience as a parent). Teachers pop out, speak to a parent or guardian and often issues are addressed much quicker.  So why does it change at secondary?  On training days, or meetings suggestions are regularly made from SLT to select 3-5 parents every week with positive news, ring the parent of a student that isn’t behaving, or a student you have noticed has changed recently; promote the department and good work being made. And if I didn’t have meetings, sometimes up to three a week, interventions or duties I would. You see a quick phone call to a parent can actually take 20 mins or more, multiply that by several and you can be tied up for quite a while, oh and that’s if you manage to speak to them! There are some parents I call multiple times and can never get hold of them – they have their own commitments. All of that coupled with pressures of marking, planning etc and your own family, ensures what appears as a simple task, can actually become quite onerous.

This year I wanted to be more pro-active with regards home/school contact, so I came up with a few ideas to trial and hopefully build good parent/teacher/student relationships.  Out of all the different routes I tried (phone calls and emails – which were both successful) the one that involved the least amount of work from myself, proved the most successful. It was also an idea which originated from my very good friend Emily Greenacre (@e_greenacre).

One autumn day after marking a set of books I sat back once again both proud of the work in some books and in an equal measure disappointed from the lack of effort in others. I wondered what would their parents think if they could see the work produced; would they be pleased with the quality and quantity learning? In some cases probably not.

I knocked up a slip for parents to comment on (template homework-task1). I tried to make them as simple as possible, after all I didn’t want them used as a platform to moan about other aspects of school. So I covered three areas as a classroom teacher I was interested in; presentation, effort and attitude to learning. But how could I ensure I received all back? So, I set as a homework task. My instructions to students were clear get a responsible adult at home to look through your book, ask them to comment on the three areas. I made it clear to students that parents could say as little or as much as they wanted. We also have an above average EAL intake, so my suggestion to students whose parents have limited English was to read and translate for them.

Then I sat back and nibbled my nails anxiously waiting for my little experiment to work!

Not only were all returned, the trial run was successful! Parents completed the slips with brutal honesty, some commenting on how proud they were of their child, others saying their child wasn’t working hard enough in lessons. Many suggested to their children to use time wisely and check work back. Many parents were grateful for the opportunity to go through the books with their child.

I took my little idea to twitter and several other teachers have run a trial, all with similar success. The thing with this. as a teacher, you don’t really have to do anything. The student/parent does most of the work! I have pretty much all slips returned, and before you ask yes that includes all my EAL, PP and SEND students. Some parents have raised some issues – those are followed up individually, however I read all and comment and respond appropriately on the slip.

I decided to send home October, February and June half term. I don’t want to annoy anyone; I feel three a year is sufficient.

So if you’re looking for a way to build home/school relationships with a system that doesn’t take up too much of your time then don’t take my word for it, try it! Download the template, if you’re not keen on my choice of words – simple, change them!

All I can say is these were extremely effective, but don’t take my words for it, here are some examples:

You can download the template here:

homework task

and the matching student End of Unit:

Self assessment slips

Thanks for reading. Please leave a comment – I’m always learning!